The crowds have been large and enthusiastic for the Bloomington Early Music Festival series of concerts this past weekend. Here are some thoughts of mine about three events.
The echoing and spacious rotunda of the Monroe County Courthouse served as venue for a program of “French Love Songs in the Month of May.” These declarations of love were sung long ago, between the 13th century and the early 17th, coming from the creative spirits of Josquin des Prez to Marin Marais, just to list a couple of the more familiar composers.
What one heard and watched, thanks to the direction of a participant, Kathryn Summersett of the gleaming soprano, was a weave of compellingly attractive music, both vocal and instrumental. The concert required hardworking performers: four singers (Summersett, tenor Gregorio Taniguchi, countertenor Michael Walker and baritone David Rugger) and seven instrumentalists (violinist Maria Romero, lutenist Jon Wasserman, Charles Wines on percussion and recorder, Sarah Lodico and Brady Lanier on viols, Nicholas Burrus on harp and percussion, and Chris Burrus on viol, hurdy-gurdy, rebec and percussion).
The music, sad and joyful, both lulled and excited, coming at a listener as a river of sound, all of it falling sweetly on the ears as it swept one back in thought to those times so long ago. The singers were wonderful at their task, capturing what the music likely sounded like back then, as did the instrumentalists. The concert was a splendid example of historical performance at work, a worthy follow-through to the festival’s earlier programs.
It was all Bach mid-Saturday in the filled sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church, four of Johann Sebastian’s sonatas requiring the virtuosities of Early Music performers well known hereabouts from previous BLEMF days and performances while they studied at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. All of them have by now further distinguished themselves as performers elsewhere as well as in Bloomington: violinist Ingrid Matthews, flutist Colin St. Martin, cellist Shelley Taylor and harpsichordist Byron Schenkman.
Each of the sonatas chosen bears the signs of Bach, brimming as they are with counterpoint and other juicy delectations. Thanks to the BLEMF planners; they found the right artists to display them. Matthews and Schenkman are most familiar to me, after numerous concert and CD exposures. The two of them partnered for Bach’s Sonata in G Major, BWV 1019, for Violin and Harpsichord. Each had plenty of opportunities to shine, while also blending into a needed ensemble.
I’m sorry that Schenkman didn’t have a solo spot, because he knows how to make the absolute most of the harpsichord. But Matthews did get her solo, choosing the G Minor, BWV 1001, with its fugal moments and lyrical, plus a final movement made for speedy and agile fiddling. My, how Ingrid Matthews fiddled!
Schenkman joined St. Martin for the Sonata in B Minor, BWV 1030, for Flute and Harpsichord, and they made it joyful listening. St. Martin produced notes at all times perfectly on point and clear and flourishes fluid, just as one prefers to have the instrument sweetly warble.
Finally, to the front came all four musicians, this time with cellist Shelley Taylor (providing basso continuo), to play the Trio-Sonata in G Major, BWV 1039. The quartet made of it a well-knit reading and an appropriate ending to a most appealing concert.
This event had an added purpose: to honor Wendy Gillespie on her retirement from the Jacobs School, where she served for influential decades and in recent years took on the directorship of the Early Music Institute, for which — among numerous other achievements — she was instrumental in organizing the Bloomington Bach Cantata Project. She is considered a viol player supreme and has set high standards for those who play the instrument. One former student present for the concert, Liam Byrne, recalled that after his senior recital, she limited her reaction to the words: “That’s the best I’ve heard you play.” He added that her strongly remembered principles for students were to believe in the music and that a musician can always do better.
The program included filmed comments from many other students and former colleagues in the concert and academic worlds. Quite a few also were in Auer Hall to address her in person and to play. So, one heard quite a bit of interesting music, very well performed on a variety of viols in different shapes and sound ranges.
Among the highlights was the above-mentioned Byrne, making his way through a solo piece by Alfonso Ferrabosco II, featuring just about every touch of trickery and surprise. Also there were loving comments from her husband of 35 years, retired Jacobs School professor and tenor Paul Elliott and — as part of an ensemble encore — a solo by alto/countertenor Michael Walker of “Unforgettable,” directly and devotedly aimed at the humble Professor Gillespie.
I congratulate her. She’s been a musical blessing here.